Book Review: Flame in the Mist

Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review: I loved Renee Ahdieh’s Wrath and the Dawn duology, so I was really excited to read Flame in the Mist. From the summary it looked like it would hit all the beats that I love about fantasy – smart heroine, dashing fight scenes, a bit of magic, and a plot where nothing is as it seems. Flame in the Mist does hit all those beats, but for some odd reason it took me a while to get into the story. I initially wasn’t feeling Mariko; I can’t truly figure out why it took me so long to warm up to her. Markio is an extremely intelligent young woman who is quite observant (a quality that I love in a character) and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is inquisitive, always asking questions which was a wonderful device Ahdieh used to get background information across. She’s decisive and is full of agency in this novel. When she learns that her parents had arranged her marriage, she rebelled in the most unique way – not that her parents know it, but Mariko feels like she has taken some control over her life with that one act. When the kiss comes between her and the mysterious Wolf, she is the one who initiates it. Clearly, as I describe her Mariko is a great character, but for some odd reason it took me a while to make a connection with her. I think it is because while Mariko is main character and we are in her head a good portion of the book, we are also in the heads of other characters fairly early in the book as it sets up the mystery. To me, it brought a sense of distance from Mariko that I didn’t fully connect with her until the plot became fully focused on her time with the Black Clan. I also feel like the pace of the novel changed from that point on as well and I was really able to dive into who the Black Clan truly were and what they stood for, as Mariko became comfortable with her abilities and becoming a member of the group.

On the other hand, Ahdieh did her due diligence in her research on feudal Japan. Granted, I am not an expert, but the world that Ahdieh created felt very real and believable, with the exception of the inclusion of magic, as if the events in the story could really have happen in history. The detail to which she describes the various locations bring to life Mariko’s world and all who inhabit it. Ahdieh weaves folklore into the story, such as the terrifying Jubokko tree that feeds off of human blood, as part of the every day world. Feudal life is accurately depicted as well as the tension between nobility and commoner when a call for change begins. Mariko is from the noble class and very quickly learns what life is like for those who are not. This is never more apparent than when Mariko and the Wolf have to run from a teahouse and visit an orphanage that the Black Clan gives money to. Ahdieh describes the teahouse with such glamor, from the motions the geikos use when performing dances, to the descriptions of the building itself, that when Mariko encounters the orphanage, the feeling of the book practically changes. The orphanage is the exact opposite of the teahouse and Ahdieh’s powerful prose juxtaposes the harshness of the orphanage to the teahouse beautifully. Ahdieh’s careful and accurate description of Mariko’s world is ultimately what makes Flame in the Mist so enjoyable. It’s so easy to get lost in the world Ahdieh created and imagine the time of the samurai.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a good fantasy, buy this book.

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New Release

This week brings us a fantasy release.

Flame in the Mist (Flame in the Mist #1) by Renee Ahdieh
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family’s standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the ranks of the Black Clan, determined to track down the person responsible for the target on her back. But she’s quickly captured and taken to the Black Clan’s secret hideout, where she meets their leader, the rebel ronin Takeda Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, his best friend Okami. Still believing her to be a boy, Ranmaru and Okami eventually warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. As Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets, of betrayal and murder, which will force her to question everything she’s ever known. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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Review: North of Happy

Title: North of Happy
Author: Adi Alsaid
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 304 pages
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Review Copy: ARC received
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carlos Portillo has always led a privileged and sheltered life. A dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, he lives in Mexico City with his wealthy family, where he attends an elite international school. Always a rule follower and a parent pleaser, Carlos is more than happy to tread the well-worn path in front of him. He has always loved food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby.

When his older brother, Felix—who has dropped out of college to live a life of travel—is tragically killed, Carlos begins hearing his brother’s voice, giving him advice and pushing him to rebel against his father’s plan for him. Worrying about his mental health but knowing the voice is right, Carlos runs away to the United States and manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef. As he works to improve his skills in the kitchen and pursue his dream, he begins to fall for his boss’s daughter—a fact that could end his career before it begins. Finally living for himself, Carlos must decide what’s most important to him and where his true path really lies.

Review: Adi Alsaid excels at building a world. Whether Carlos is exploring his new home with Emma or at a party or in the kitchen at Provecho, it is easy to imagine the world he moves through. The kitchen itself is a highlight, filled with strong personalities and amazing food descriptions. Starting each chapter with an ingredient list for a recipe (for a dish that usually, if not always, showed up in the chapter) was a fun touch and an easy way to remind the reader just how much food and cooking mean to Carlos.

The interactions between Carlos and his hallucinations of Felix were one of the best parts of North of Happy, especially since it gave Carlos the opportunity to question what he actually wanted out of life. Deciding that his father’s plan wasn’t for him was the beginning, but that’s far from deciding on a direction that he actually wanted for his life. The pushes that Felix gave to Carlos were just as important as the times that Carlos pushed back, and it was great to see Carlos deciding for himself what would and wouldn’t make him happy.

There were two main weaknesses in my opinion: the lack of screen time for the relationship between Carlos and his father and the underdevelopment of Emma. I never really got enough of a close look at Carlos’s father to be able to fully understand why he was at such odds with both their sons. This undermined the conclusion of his arc for me since it made the ending feel at least partially unearned. Emma’s character was never allowed to flourish for me; or at least, I craved something deeper from the book on her behalf and didn’t feel like I ever quite got it. She swung very close to the Manic Pixie archetype at times and spent many of her interactions with Carlos as his unwitting therapist. That said, there were several excellent scenes between Carlos and Emma that gave Emma depth, and the culmination of her arc was a (mostly) pleasant surprise for me.

Finally, I do wish there had been some kind of overt mention of Carlos getting help for his mental health at the end. (If it was there, I missed it.) He was hallucinating his dead brother for months, struggling with depression, etc., and while Carlos does admit to not being entirely okay, it would have been nice to see him working toward getting him the assistance he still needs.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you have an interest in the culinary arts. While there are a few missteps in the book, Carlos is an engaging narrator whose story is likely to resonate with a lot of people. If you’re in the mood for a book about grieving and growing up, this will probably hit the spot.

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Review: Radio Silence

Title: Radio Silence
Author: Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Genre:Contemporary, LGBTQIA
Pages: 496
Review copy: Library loan
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl.

I just wanted to say—we don’t.

Frances Janvier spends most of her time studying. When she’s not studying, she’s up in her room making fan art for her favorite podcast, Universe City.

Everyone knows Aled Last as that quiet boy who gets straight As. But no one knows he’s the creator of Universe City, who goes by the name Radio Silence.

When Frances gets a message from Radio Silence asking if she’ll collaborate with him, everything changes. Frances and Aled spend an entire summer working together and becoming best friends. They get each other when no one else does.

But when Aled’s identity as Radio Silence is revealed, Frances fears that the future of Universe City—and their friendship—is at risk. Aled helped her find her voice. Without him, will she have the courage to show the world who she really is? Or will she be met with radio silence?

Review: 
They don’t fall in love. This was one of the things I appreciated about Radio Silence. Aled and Frances share a love for the podcast Universe City. They are both creative and enjoy spending time together, but not in a romantic way. Frances’ mother asks if there is something more happening, but they don’t want or need that type of relationship with each other. The book does include some couples, but romance isn’t the focus for the most part. I loved the time spent getting to know the characters and seeing their friendships develop.

From the U.S. cover, you wouldn’t know it, but Frances is mixed-race with a white mother and an Ethiopian father. Frances doesn’t know much about her Ethiopian culture and wishes that was different. That isn’t something explored very deeply, but it’s part of her story.

Another aspect of the story is the issue of expectations around university attendance. Frances, Aled, and their friend Daniel are all on a trajectory leading directly to university. This is something Frances has been highly focused on for years without questioning the plan. As a teacher, I know we encourage students to think about college even in elementary school. This story challenged that expectation in many ways. It also challenged the assumption that academics trump the arts because one will not get you money in the end.

Finally, Frances and Aled both have mothers who are active in their lives. Frances has a mother who encourages independence and experimentation and Aled has one who is quite the opposite. I’m always looking for adults in young adult books who care for teens and treat them with respect so I was happy to meet one of these moms. She also has a unicorn onesie and I have to say that made me smile.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy books about relationships and finding your path. Also, if you like a bit of quirky in your novels. There’s quite a good helping of quirky.

Extras:
Interview with Alice Oseman on Rich in Color
Trailer

Alice Oseman Reads Radio Silence

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Author Interview: Alice Oseman

Having grown up believing college was an expectation, Radio Silence was quite an interesting story line for me and I enjoyed thinking about the alternative paths one can take. Today we welcome author Alice Oseman as she answers questions about her novel and her writing.

Can you tell our readers a bit about Radio Silence
Radio Silence follows the story of Frances Janvier, a high-achiever who has worked all her life to get to Cambridge University. But she has a secret – when she’s not obsessively studying, she’s a huge fangirl of a YouTube podcast show called Universe City. Frances thinks she knows what she wants out of her life – grades, university, money, happiness – but then she meets the creator of Universe City, and everything changes.
 
What do you love most about Frances and Aled?
My favourite thing about Frances is her childishness – she isn’t afraid to make herself look silly and just have fun. My favourite thing about Aled is his creativity and how much he dedicates himself to his creative projects.
 
Tell us how you really feel about university. Can you share a little about how your opinion was shaped?
I grew up thinking I was destined for Oxbridge, but failed to get in when I applied. I’d been a high-achiever my entire life and was crushingly disappointed. When I went to Durham University instead, a university I chose purely because it was high up on the league tables, I had a terrible time, and only realized then that university study probably wasn’t for me. I felt brainwashed into believing that I was a person who I was not by school and my teachers and the entire system of education.
 
I noticed there were several conversations about strong love between friends and even a little push back against characters who seemed to place more importance on romantic love. How deliberate was this or did the characters simply bring that about?
I, as a writer, am simply tired of romantic love being presented in Young Adult fiction as a priority, or even as something common. The truth is, very few people meet the ‘love of their life’ in their teenage years, but Young Adult fiction as a whole seems to present the idea that everyone meets their soulmate in their teens. I think there are a lot more interesting and realistic things to write about teenagers.
 
Which writers have been inspirational for you?
I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without Bret Easton Ellis (despite all his faults), or without J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
 
Why is diversity in young adult fiction important to you?
It’s very important to me that all young people can see themselves in the books they read. We live in a very diverse society, and that should be reflected accurately in our literature.
 
And just for fun – do you have a Batman, unicorn, or otherwise unique onesie?
I have several – Batman, a teddy bear and a giraffe!

 You may find Alice on Twitter, Tumblr, Youtube, Instagram, Blog, and her Art Blog.
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Review: Queens of Geek

Title:  Queens of Geek
Author: Jen Wilde
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 288
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Availability: Out now!

Summary: When BFFs Charlie, Taylor and Jamie go to SupaCon, they know it’s going to be a blast. What they don’t expect is for it to change their lives forever. Charlie likes to stand out. SupaCon is her chance to show fans she’s over her public breakup with co-star, Reese Ryan. When Alyssa Huntington arrives as a surprise guest, it seems Charlie’s long-time crush on her isn’t as one-sided as she thought.

While Charlie dodges questions about her personal life, Taylor starts asking questions about her own. Taylor likes to blend in. Her brain is wired differently, making her fear change. And there’s one thing in her life she knows will never change: her friendship with Jamie—no matter how much she may secretly want it to. But when she hears about the Queen Firestone SupaFan Contest, she starts to rethink her rules on playing it safe. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I was immediately sold on Queens of Geek, just by the blurb. While I’ve never thrown myself into a fandom, I find discussions of fandom culture – whether in fiction or in meta posts online – fascinating. In that sense, Queens of Geek was right up my alley.

The book follows two best friends, Charlie and Taylor as they attend the convention SupaCon for the very first time, with third BFF Jamie in tow. Vlogging star Charlie Liang is still dealing with the fallout from her celebrity breakup with her indie-movie-turned-sensation co-star Reese — all while falling for fellow superstar Alyssa Huntington. Meanwhile, her best friend Taylor is busy chronicling her SupaCon experiences on Tumblr and coming to terms with her crush on her friend Jamie.

The identities and topics included in Queens of Geek – bisexuality, mental health, body image, sexism, fandom culture, and more – are smoothly incorporated into the book. As I’m not super familiar with fandom culture and other aspects of the book, I’m looking forward to what other, more knowledgeable, readers think of how things are handled in the book.

In general, I had tons of fun reading Queens of Geek, and there were quite a few swoonworthy (yep, sorry, I’m using that word now) moments. If you’re into fandom culture, or just reading about it, then definitely check Queens of Geek out.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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